NBC is promoting "1600 Penn," a midseason sitcom from Baltimore native Jason Winer, as " 'Modern Family' meets 'The West Wing.' "
Forget "The West Wing" part.
After seeing three episodes, including the pilot that premieres with a sneak preview at 9:30 p.m. Monday, after "The Voice," I can tell you that this series is going to sink or swim as a family sitcom. And how much viewers like or don't like it as a family series is mainly going to depend on their reaction to Josh Gad, the Broadway star of "The Book of Mormon" who plays the screw-up son of the president of the United States (Bill Pullman).
The good news for a resurgent NBC, which is betting big on the show by giving it a Thursday night spot in its prime-time lineup come January, is that there's a lot to like about Gad. While some viewers might initially find his character, Skip Gilchrist, obnoxious, Gad is one of the few comedic actors on TV with enough talent to ultimately win the audience over to his character's side.
Winer, a Friends School graduate who won a Directors Guild Award for his work on the pilot of "Modern Family," has been saying for months that the series he created and is producing with Gad and former White House speechwriter Jon Lovett is primarily about family — not politics.
"It's not fundamentally a political show," Winer said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun earlier this year. "I wouldn't be surprised if we never say the word 'Democrat' or 'Republican' in the entire series. This is a show about a family, first and foremost. Whereas 'The West Wing' got into the nitty-gritty of political reality, this show focuses on the details of this family's life — a family that just happens to be in the fishbowl of the most famous address in America."
In addition to Pullman ("Independence Day") as a gruff but caring president and father, and Gad as the grown son forced to move back home after a college prank goes wrong, the rest of the family includes Jenna Elfman ("Friends With Benefits") as Emily Nash Gilchrist, a super-accomplished stepmom desperately trying to win over President Gilchrist's kids. Along with Skip, they are college-age Becca (Martha MacIsaac) and teenagers Marigold (Amara Miller) and Xander (Benjamin Stockham).
A pregnancy threatens to throw the living quarters at the White House into turmoil during the first three episodes. That's all I can say about the basic story line without heading into spoiler territory.
Here's the way in which "1600 Penn" is very much like "Modern Family": It stresses the family as mixed up, messed up and deeply flawed, with wall-to-wall inner tensions among the members. But all conflicts are ultimately resolved in each episode by the affection, if not love, these very imperfect characters have for one another. That's the imprint of Winer, a self-described sitcom traditionalist at heart.
President Gilchrist, in a private moment after a meeting of the whole family in the Oval Office, says to Becca, "Come on. Isn't it nice to have everyone under the same roof again? I miss it. I wish that we could go out for pizza like the old days."
"With Mom?" she snaps sarcastically, referring to her mother — not stepmom Emily, whom she clearly dislikes.
The first time viewers meet Xander and Marigold, they are hitting each other, with the older Marigold promising her diminutive younger brother that she will continue to treat him badly as long as she likes.
All the kids dump on Emily, whom they consider a "trophy wife" who wrecked their family — except Skip.
On one level, Skip is the biggest mess of all. After seven years of college, he still doesn't have a degree when his father orders him home. He has absolutely no sense of what he wants to do with his life except work his magic tricks, loll about in the White House pool and eat junk food. He has body issues; there's no doubt about that — and he isn't doing anything about them either.
But Skip is the glue that holds this stressed-out family together. There is an innate goodness, maybe even an innocence, to this manchild that allows him to solve problems in the White House that even his father can't. He's the one the newly pregnant member of the family finds comfort with as she adjusts to the change in her life.
In that sense, "1600" is less an ensemble than "Modern Family." There is no one in the hit ABC series who plays as large and central a role as Gad's Skip. Julie Bowen's Claire would be the closest.
But he's used as a catalyst to get the family members to the same place each week that "Modern Family" goes — what Winer labeled as "the big hug" in The Sun interview.
At the end of the pilot, the Gilchrists do get to go out for pizza as a family. In the second episode, there is a group embrace among all the family members — except the president, who looks on lovingly.
Winer could as easily have been talking about the Gilchrists when he said of the "Modern Family" clan: "I think this family is a different kind of TV family in that the jokes don't come because this family is dysfunctional or these people are broken in one way or another. There's a sweetness at the core of the show."
Based on the early episodes, it does not appear that "1600 Penn" breaks the kind of new ground that "Modern Family" did with its enlightened multiculturalism and take on gay identities. Nevertheless, it does hold the promise of cultural relevance.
Skip is the grown child in his 20s who left for college and is now back home living in the basement or in his old room. He is the one who appears to be locked into — or maybe adrift in — extended adolescence.
But "1600 Penn," with Gad's engaging performance and scripts that celebrate Skip at its core, demands that viewers look at that grown child through new eyes and value that person for who he or she is — not what the child has or hasn't achieved.
Parents and adult children in that situation should love this show for making them feel good about what can be a complicated and stressful living arrangement. Rather than cursing the failure of a child to launch from the nest, one message that "1600 Penn" sounds loud and clear is to treasure that child for what he or she brings to the family — and to be grateful for having "everyone under the same roof again."
Premieres at 9:30 p.m Monday on WBAL (Channel 11).
Recent tweets from Baltimore Sun media and television critic David Zurawik: